Big Red, Western Kentucky University's athletic mascot, was born in the fall of 1979 and celebrates its birthday on December 1st. Big Red can be best described as the Spirit of Western!
Unveiled in '79, Big Red a WKU icon
University's fuzzy, red blob has garnered national, international attention from home on the Hill
By Chad Bishop, Bowling Green Daily News
It has become more than a mascot.
Big Red, Western Kentucky University's amorphous, ambiguous, asexual and always lovable representative of the school's athletics, has spent more than 30 years rising to an unimaginable state of popularity and national - sometimes global - recognition.
What is it? Where did it come from? And what in the world is it doing? Such are the questions echoed by many who come into contact with the furry red specimen who delights crowds with dances and hijinks.
From appearances on "The Ellen Degeneres Show," "Deal or No Deal" and commercials for ESPN's "SportsCenter," to consistently making top 10 lists of all sorts, even to being involved in an international lawsuit - Big Red's legacy continues to grow.
In the fall of 1979, Western Kentucky athletics was searching for a mascot.
Sure, there was the popular red towel adorning fans and uniforms and other paraphernalia, but WKU wanted something a little more personable.
"When they first said they were looking, I had no preconceived notions of anything," said Ralph Carey, Big Red's creator. "I knew that mascots were problematic - I had some awareness of other mascots. Part of the issue was branding and creating something unique and identifiable as a Western-only icon."
At a time when the San Diego Chicken - then pacing the stands during San Diego Padres games - was popular, Carey said he knew he couldn't create the Western Kentucky Chicken, but wanted something along the same lines.
It couldn't be an animal, and Carey said he wanted to stray as far away from a hillbilly stereotype as possible.
The answer would be found somewhere in between.
Soon, Carey had dreamed up a sketch of the future of Hilltopper athletics - a large, fuzzy, red blob he scribbled on a piece of paper while meeting with future school president Gary Ransdell, who was then working in the office of alumni relations.
"It started, actually, there was a drawing at one point in time, and I have it, of a bear in a sweater with a big ‘W' on the front of it," he laughed. "I got through with that drawing and said, ‘This is not where this thing needs to go.'
"I had some experience with some other characters in terms of their abilities to be animated by the wearer. That was also a key element because I was going to end up wearing this thing. I said, ‘How about this?' and scribbled a Big Red.
"(The committee) kind of looked sideways at it and said, ‘Why don't you work on that one?' "
Carey returned to the drawing board, refined the character while a deadline approached for its debut.
For an initial cost of about $300 - and made of 3-M foam, fake fur, plastic tubing and aluminum framing - Big Red was born.
On Dec. 1, 1979, in front of more than 10,000 fans inside E.A. Diddle Arena, the world was introduced to Big Red.
"That was something," said Gene Keady, the Tops' men's basketball coach at the time and current special assistant and adviser at St. John's. "We were really proud of that because we were trying to find something besides the red towels to bring some excitement to the crowd and some enthusiasm. Turned out Big Red was the answer.
"We worked at trying to originate something like that, so it was something that we wanted. It was not a surprise. But I guess we were kind of surprised at how well it worked."
Noted for goofball antics, dancing and, allegedly, a bit of a kleptomania, those who perform as Big Red find the job no laughing matter.
Paula Davids, a marketing assistant for WKU who's known around campus as "Big Red's Mom," says prospective Big Reds go through an extensive tryout, usually in April.
Candidates are judged on personality, performance and overall appearance while inside the suit.
"Case in point," she said, "one incoming freshman who tried out for Big Red, he was a natural and you could tell the minute he put on the suit. It was just natural for him and you could not tell the difference between him and one of our current Big Reds."
After Carey birthed Big Red, Mark Greer took over for the next three years. He was the first Big Red at a WKU football game, wearing a handmade suit complete with a bicycle helmet and wires in the head piece.
"About 50 percent of the time, playing Big Red was keeping Big Red together," said Greer, who still serves on the committee to select Big Red. "It was almost like being a mechanic and a seamstress and a cartoon character all rolled into one. The thing was not washable, so you had to come up with a way to get the stink out of it, too."
Those who have been inside the suit are listed on the school's library archive website and Greer said he's still friends with quite a few of those who have donned the costume.
Davids doesn't lose contact with any of them.
"I keep in touch," she said. "In fact, this summer we struggled to have a Big Red available because everybody that was in town either had two jobs or a full-time job. Our previous Big Reds, I would find out there's a request in Louisville, and I called all the previous Big Reds in the Louisville area to see if any of them wanted to it. One mentioned to me, ‘Once a Big Red, always a Big Red.' "
With popularity can come controversy.
At the turn of the century, Italy's Antonio Ricci came up with a creature named Gabibbo for Italian children's television.
The similarities between Gabibbo and Big Red are undeniable and Ricci was even quoted in a magazine article as saying he got the idea for Gabibbo from a photo of Big Red.
WKU filed a lawsuit that ultimately failed, and Gabibbo endures today.
The "Gabibbo Incident" is just a small case of how large Big Red's persona has become.
Davids said the mascot is booked nearly year-round, from the Capital One Mascot Challenge in Los Angeles to birthday parties, weddings and school functions.
"What really surprises me is the magnitude," Davis said. "Some people in foreign countries call in or write in asking for autographs, or a picture of Big Red and you're like, ‘I didn't even know they knew him.' "
The figure has won a litany of awards and honors, both regionally and nationally, and its popularity has grown exponentially year after year.
That's no surprise to Greer.
"It's a very funny suit. ... It can make expressions where most mascots have one stupid expression on their face at all times," he said. "Big Red can show emotion like no other mascot. Everybody can associate with it. The kids love him, too, because he's a great big Muppet to them. He appeals to all age groups."
Keady jokes that he invented the thing, but conceded he didn't expect it to grow as popular as it has become.
"I don't think anybody did, but I'm very happy to see it," he said.
Big Red Appearance Form